Opinion Piece by Christine Henseler, “Calling All Humanists: Let’s Reach Out and Touch Someone!”

Over the last few years and months, economic and quantitative data have driven public conversations about the humanities, emphasizing ideas related to “decline” and “lack,” “unworthiness” and “uselessness.” Through such notions, directives have justified cuts in funding and programs; they have oversold technical and professional schools and undermined the value of a balanced liberal education.

Yet despite these and other public reports, books, articles, and speeches, we still need to do a better job communicating who we are, what we do, and why we do it to a general public. We have yet to find a powerful way to speak up and speak to different audiences in plain language and through multiple media outlets. We could do more to participate in public conversations, whether through print or online media, television or radio; and we could certainly make better use of social networking sites and crowdsourcing opportunities to reach out to the young.

Perhaps we could use our creative digital abilities to crowdsource ideas and designs that market our disciplines? Perhaps we could put our writing skills to use by developing clear, simple, memorable arguments for the humanities, then publishing them on Facebook, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube? Perhaps we should think about hiring an advertising agency to develop our own national television campaigns in support of the humanities? Just imagine the power of a series of ads that appear on Hulu.com, YouTube, the Disney Channel, MSNBC, or, do I dare, on FOX Television.

How hard can it be? We are the masters of storytelling, the masters of contextualization, logical thinking, linguistic and cultural understanding, visual depiction and digital construction. We should be able to create, remix, renew, and envision who we are with no problem at all.

So what’s the problem? Why has it been so difficult to mobilize the troops? Why is it that we don’t speak out more often together, loudly and publicly, nationally and internationally against naysayers and critics? In an age of collaboration and teamwork, do our often lonely ways of conducting research make us feel too disconnected from others? Have our tenure promotion demands cut us off too much from promoting the humanities themselves? Is the competition between institutions too fierce that leaders can’t come together?

It is time to change our ways. It is time to organize and collaborate on a larger scale and to reach out and touch someone with words, images, music, and tweets. It is time the bumper stickers on our cars say “Go Humanities!”

Our collaborative efforts need to reach out to everyone, from all ranks and disciplinary fields, from inside and outside the academy, because it is when one business leader talks to another and when one parent has the language needed to articulate why a degree or a background in humanistic studies is worth the time and money, that is when our national dialogue, our policies, and our politics will change.

You see, through this work on 4Humanities and my more recent webpage project “The Arts & Humanities in the 21st Century Workplace: Why Great Leaders Are Joining the Dialogue,” I have learned that we have more friends out there than we may think. We have friends in industry, in entrepreneurship, in medicine, in non-profits, in government, and in everyday life. We have friends in the STEM disciplines who understand perfectly well why a student with a music background makes a better doctoral candidate in Planetary Science (see the blog post by Joseph Harrington on my webpage) or why my neighbor, Elaina McCartney, who has a degree in English, was chosen to operate one of the cameras on the NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission. For our advocacy efforts in the humanities to be successful, we need to involve our friends in the workplace and in fields outside our own. We need to reach out to them and involve them in changing this all-important dialogue.

If we can reach the parents of our future students, those who work in our neighborhood businesses, who design the software programs we look at on our screens or provide the social services needed in our communities, then we just might have a fighting chance to change the national dialogue concerning the value of the humanities. But as long as we continue to talk to ourselves, in our language and in our spaces, then only we will remain convinced. So let’s reach out and touch someone with the work we do in the humanities, and maybe the public’s ears will start ringing as well.

Christine Henseler is Professor of Spanish at Union College. She works on topics pertaining to Generation X, twenty-first century Spanish literature, media and cultural studies, and the humanities.

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